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Art Neville, A New Orleans Icon, Dead At 81

Jul 22, 2019
Originally published on July 23, 2019 9:33 am

One of New Orleans' iconic musicians has died. Art Neville — a founding member of both the Meters and the Neville Brothers, died Monday at age 81. His death was confirmed by his nephew Ivan Neville (the son of Art's brother, Aaron) and his manager of two decades, Kent Sorrell. According to Nola.com, he had been in declining health for years.

The keyboardist, singer and songwriter known as "Poppa Funk" was born December 17, 1937. Growing up, he loved doo-wop and the pianism of such New Orleans giants as Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. During high school, in 1953, he joined a group called the Hawketts. Just a year later, at age 17, he sang lead vocals on the Hawketts' version of a country tune called "Mardi Gras Mambo." It became a carnival classic.

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Neville soon joined the Navy, and served in the late 1950s and early '60s. But he didn't give up his musical dreams: Even during his time in the service, he recorded a string of R&B singles. By the middle of the 1960s, he led a band called Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, a group which legendary New Orleans producer, pianist, singer and songwriter Allen Toussaint tapped as house musicians for his label, Minit. Soon, the Neville Sounds were renamed the Meters.

As the late Toussaint told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1988, Art Neville was "a natural leader because every time he's ever put a band together, it's been very special and very unique. And the Meters was no exception, of course."

With songs like "Fire on the Bayou" and "Cissy Strut," the Meters became popular both in New Orleans and much further afield. They toured Europe and North America with the Rolling Stones; Paul McCartney hired them to perform at one of his album release parties. In 2018, The Meters were given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys, which cited the band as "the founding fathers of funk ... Their trademark sound of syncopated layered percussion intertwined with gritty grooves on guitar, bass, and organ, blends funk, blues, and dance grooves with a New Orleans vibe that is regarded as one of the most influential in music history."

Neville Brothers VEVO / YouTube

By the late '70s, Art Neville — along with brothers Aaron singing, the late Charles on saxophone and drummer Cyril — had joined forces to record with their uncle George "Jolly" Landry on his 1976 album The Wild Tchoupitoulas. It gave the siblings the springboard to form their own band: the Neville Brothers.

The group became a New Orleans institution. They were such an epitome of the city that for years, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival closed out with a Neville Brothers set.

The Neville Brothers released their last studio album in 2004, and took part in a farewell concert in New Orleans in 2015. Most recently, he had been performing as a founder of the funky METERS, a band that brought him back together with two of his longtime collaborators: original Meters bassist George Porter Jr., and a former guitarist for the Neville Brothers, Brian Stoltz. Last December, Art Neville announced his retirement.

Andrew Flanagan contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New Orleans is grieving the loss of one of its musical greats. Art Neville was a founding member of both The Meters and The Neville Brothers. He died Monday at the age of 81. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas looks back at his life.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: In a city full of good musicians, Art Neville was great. He was just 17 when he sang the lead on a song that became a Mardi Gras classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARDI GRAS MAMBO")

THE HAWKETTS: (Singing) Down in New Orleans, where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ART NEVILLE: I was in high school, and we had the band with some guys in school. How we got the band together, I don't know; we just decided we wanted to play music.

TSIOULCAS: This is Art Neville speaking to NPR in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEVILLE: With the little uniforms on - the roomy (ph) coats and the gray pants and the black patent leather shoes. And there was eight of us, you know, little pretty dudes. This was hip, and we wanted to record a song. We got a chance to record "Mardi Gras Mambo." Seventeen years old, didn't know what was happening. And we just felt, you know, it was good. It was fun.

TSIOULCAS: Art Neville was drawn to doo-wop and R&B as a kid. And even while serving in the Navy, he continued performing and recorded a string of singles as a vocalist. But it was as a keyboard player that he really started to get noticed. By the middle of the 1960s, he led a band that became house musicians for the famed New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "CISSY STRUT")

TSIOULCAS: They became known as The Meters, as Toussaint recalled in a 1988 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: He's a natural leader because every time he's ever put a band together, it's been very special and very unique, and The Meters was no exception, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "CISSY STRUT")

TSIOULCAS: With songs like "Cissy Strut" and "Fire On The Bayou," The Meters became stars in New Orleans and carried their music far from home. They opened for The Rolling Stones and played for Paul McCartney. And The Meters were some of the founding fathers of funk. They were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. But by the late 1970s, Art Neville had teamed up with his siblings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YELLOW MOON")

THE NEVILLE BROTHERS: (Singing) Whoa. Yellow moon, yellow moon, yellow moon, have you seen that Creole woman? Ooh.

TSIOULCAS: The Neville Brothers became favorites at concerts and clubs around the world. Aaron sang lead, the late Charles played saxophone, Cyril played drums and Art keyboards. The group became a New Orleans institution. For years, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival closed out with a Neville Brothers set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY ALL ASK'D FOR YOU")

THE METERS: (Singing) They all asked for you.

TSIOULCAS: The group made its farewell appearance in 2015. Last December, Art Neville announced his retirement. He thanked his fans, as he said, for letting us share our music with the world.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY ALL ASK'D FOR YOU")

THE METERS: (Singing) I went on down to the Audubon Zoo, and they all asked for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.